Occasionally, extremely difficult decisions are encountered that reveal no morally obvious course of action to take. Such circumstances are best summed up with the common euphemism, “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” A prime example of one such extremely difficult decision would be the following:
An angry mob has taken five innocent hostages, and is threatening to kill them all unless the culprit of a recent heinous crime is caught, and hanged. The town judge has ruled that there is no good evidence in the case, thus there is no man to offer up for hanging to the mob. The judge must decide whether to frame an innocent person to save the five innocent hostages, or allow the five hostages to be slain through inaction.
In order to more accurately estimate the most ethical choice to make in a situation like this, it will be of benefit to analyze what a few of the more influential philosophers out there would have to say about it. By observing this catch-22 from various angles, perhaps a better rational might be determined which could shed some light on the moral logic behind proclaiming one choice as morally superior to the other.
Being of such stark similarity to the well-known Killing vs. Letting Die scenario that Philipa Foot first raised, it seems appropriate to begin the discussion with a look at what her input might be here. Foot’s situation involves two separate set of circumstances. The first displays an emergency situation involving the rescue of five drowning people, but in order to reach their location one must first pass by a lone person who is also currently drowning. The second displays an identical set of circumstances, with the exception that the lone person is instead somehow stuck in the middle of the road on the way to rescue the five others from drowning. The former involves letting someone die in order to save the larger group of people, whereas the latter requires the rescuer to intentionally kill the person who is stuck in their way; presumably by just running the person over in haste to reach the drowning five. In this set of circumstances, Foot concludes that the negative right of the lone person to not be murdered outweighs the positive right to life-saving aid of the five drowning people. Likewise, it appears to follow that Foot would maintain a similar stance with this current discussion on the morality of framing and hanging the innocent person to save the lives of the five hostages. In her logic, the negative right of the innocent person against the judge to not be unjustly hanged would outweigh any positive rights of the five innocent hostages against the judge to life-saving, yet illegal and unjust, intervention. This raises the point that if such a comparison of rights is to be kept honest, and I’m sure Foot would have addressed this component as well: The five hostages do not possess the positive right of unjust aid against the judge. It’s a framing; by definition the judge would himself be performing a criminal activity. It doesn’t appear intuitively logical to say that a person, or even five persons, can have a positive right against another person (a judge, no less) for an injustice to be performed. It would be far more accurate to assert that the five hostages have a positive right against law-enforcement personnel to come to their rescue, and that they have the negative right against the mob to not be murdered by them. It must be noted that this negative right is not taken against the judge, for he is in no way the perpetrator of the threatened violence and is only the judicial representative of the given area. Therefore, it cannot be claimed that the judge is morally bound to accept responsibility for any illegal and horrendous acts performed by other independent rational agents; being the mob in this scenario.
An alternative vantage point for this philosophic conundrum from J.S. Mill could also be considered. Mill’s Utilitarianism states that the only thing of intrinsic value is pleasure in the absence of pain, that the ethics of a situation should be determined by its consequences, and that the primary goal of all moral actions and decisions should be to achieve the greatest sum total of such intrinsic value in the world. He felt that a given decision is morally right only inasmuch as it leads to a higher state of overall intrinsic value when compared to any alternatives.
At first glance, it appears that Mill might feel that it would be morally justifiable to hang the innocent man in order to save the lives of the five others. After all, could it not said that the pleasure of the five relieved individuals combined with the pleasure of the satisfied mob outweighs the pain and suffering of the innocent scapegoat? However, this is most likely not an accurate depiction of what Mill would have had to say on the subject. Mill says that “it is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” This sheds a finer light on what Mill means by his philosophical use of the word “utility”. Sure, in the short-term it would seem logical to maximize utility through the execution of the one to the elation of the many, but after a little digging it becomes clear that there are some long-term consequences that have not yet been addressed. What effects would such an action have on the law and order of the given area? If it was discovered that pseudo-vigilante justice could be obtained by terrorism through the taking of hostages and the making of demands, what is to stop any mob of people from henceforth performing identical criminal acts to further their own ends? Since there is no legitimate evidence on the case, another long-term consequence of framing the innocent person would be the continued possible threat of the true perpetrator still being at large, with no continued investigation in pursuit of him. Upon reflecting on these points, it seems more plausible to assert that Mill would think such a blatantly unjust undermining of the laws meant to protect citizens results in a net decrease in overall utility, because such an action would chip away at the very infrastructure of civilized society itself. If a citizen cannot trust his government to not unjustly kill him if it is so inclined, be it due to coercion or otherwise, then surely a net decrease in overall utility is being observed; making the judge morally obligated to not frame the innocent person, and allow the mob to murder the hostages.
The morality of this decision might also be evaluated through the lens of Kantian ethics. Kant preferred to discuss things in terms of ends and means. The notion of an end is split into two categories, being either subjective or objective. Subjective ends are the common inclinations and optional desires that a person maintains, whereas objective ends are those whose existence have inherent worth. The notion of means is best described as being that which is only extrinsically valued in relation to its ability to be used as a tool for a rational agent’s purpose. Kant holds that no rational agent, which he finds to be the only true candidate for being an objective end-in-itself, should ever be treated as a mere means; like a tool at one’s disposal.
Returning to the story, it would seem that Kant would see the framing of the innocent person as a pretty cut-and-dry case of using a rational agent as a mere means. More specifically, the decision to frame the person would be using them as a mere means to achieve the satisfaction of the mob, and therefore the safety of the hostages. Conversely, it’s just as apparent that the mob has already committed a much greater sin than this; being the use of five innocent rational agents as the mere means to achieve their goal of seeing the “perpetrator” hanged. Kant would not hesitate to grant this fact, but the question is not about the morality of the mob, for it is taken for granted in the original thought-experiment that the mob is acting irrationally; that’s why it’s called “the mob”. Thus it is already painfully obvious that they are in the wrong, but this is of no connection to the morality of the judge’s given choice here. The judge, according to Kant, is faced with his own personal decision to either use an innocent rational agent as a mere means in order to satisfy the violent horde and save five lives, or not to. Kant, it is assessed, would chose the latter, out of compliance with his own tenet to never treat persons (let-alone an innocent person), as a mere means.
From analyzing the words of three prominent philosophers, it is now a bit easier to adequately grasp what would be the morally preferable choice to make in this ethical dilemma. Being such an ugly situation, there can be no attractive outcome here; someone, or five someones, is going to die. This guarantee shrouds the proper course of action in a fog of negativity, and by no means is the word “better” synonymous with “good” in this situation, but upon further inspection it appears that the morally superior choice to make would be to not frame the innocent person, and allow the mob to murder the hostages. The common statistical adage of “correlation does not imply causation” feels quite appropriate here. The judge isn’t God, and has no sovereign control over the actions of the angry mob. Simply because he fails to execute an innocent rational agent does not then imply that he is in any way responsible for the deaths of the hostages at the hand of other equally rational agents, even in this hairy situation (although the families of the hostages might beg to differ). He is but a publicly-appointed servant whose occupation is to evaluate legal evidence and data, with the maxim of enacting proper justice through due-process for all civilians. Some might argue, “But if he doesn’t hang ‘the perpetrator’, then he’s basically helping to murder the hostages!”, but I feel it necessary to point out that such logic is severely flawed, and is precisely the kind of logic a hostage-taking terrorist would like their audience to use in order to generate the motivating guilt required to satisfy the demand of unjustly hanging the innocent man. It is not ethically permissible for a judge to frame an innocent person, especially at penalty of death. Therefore it is with empathy, and disgust for such a horrid situation, that I conclude the morally preferable choice for our judge to make is to let five innocent people die.